Good morning everyone, and welcome back! A little while ago I shared some fun information about my $2,000 wedding – and now I’m going to talk about our honeymoon. To Japan.
“Japan?” people will say incredulously when I tell them where my husband and I went on our honeymoon, “Why on earth did you go there?”
Well, why not?
At the time, my husband and I were big into anime. This was back in the olden days, the time before anime could be found on Hulu and Netflix, so we would need to buy things called video tapes for our VCR (yes, I’m old) to watch it. I was taking a Japanese language class in college, just for fun. So when it came time to talk about our honeymoon, we decided to go visit Japan.
This was a very unusual choice. International travel wasn’t exactly in our blood. Neither of us had traveled internationally before, except that my husband had been to Canada once before you needed a passport to go there. Heck I’d only been on one plane ride before in my life-to Florida when I was eight years old. Neither of our families had taken international trips when we were growing up. So this was very out of the ordinary.
Looking at the prices of a trip to Japan vs. a more “traditional” honeymoon in Hawaii, a cruise, or the Caribbean, the prices at the time were roughly equal. And we knew we would have a lot more fun in Japan. Neither of us are the type to enjoy sitting around on a beach. Heck I’m as pale as a piece of computer paper, and I burn easily. I’d enjoy sitting around for a day or two before I got bored.
So I went to a local travel agent (back when those still existed-see me being old above) and they helped me book a flight and travel package to Japan. Total cost at the time was around $4k, and a few hundred more for film (again, old), food, and souvenirs. The cost ended up being almost totally offset by wedding gifts, although we didn’t count on that. We had enough saved to pay for both the wedding and honeymoon in cash.
We left for our honeymoon on September 20, 2001. If you look at that date, you’ll notice it was nine days after 9/11, which was a scary time to be flying internationally. I called the travel agent after 9/11 and the first thing they told me was that I couldn’t cancel. I thought that a bit rude-I had only called to see if the flights/travel was still on, given the chaos of flying at that time. Sure enough they were still on and so we went to the airport very early on the day we were going to take off.
Being in an airport so soon after 9/11 was an…interesting experience. There were uniformed army men stationed at the airport, carrying around huge guns. There were tarps hanging up where later they would put security stations. Our luggage-two big bags for a 10 day trip-was hand searched, every bit, while we stood there. On the plus side, because so few people were flying, we were able to skip one of our planned layovers and take a more direct flight to Tokyo. The plane was empty. As in, there were maybe 10 people on the flight and we were able to lay across the entire middle aisle and take a nap.
The Trip To Japan – A Very Memorable Honeymoon
In our tour groups in Japan, we were the only Americans. Everyone else was from somewhere in Europe. People expressed their condolences to us about 9/11, and our tour guide told us about a subway attack that had occurred in Japan by domestic terrorists. Remember, at this time we didn’t know exactly why America had been attacked and by whom. Was it like the Oklahoma City bombing? Was it Al-Qaeda? It was all still under investigation, although more information unfolded while we were overseas. It was an odd time to be on a honeymoon, that’s for sure. We spent the time we were in our hotel room watching the news to catch up on what was going on back home.
But of course we were on our honeymoon-and what exactly do you do in Japan? Well we ended up having a great time, although since it was our first international trip we made a lot of mistakes. My husband was, at the time, a picky eater and preferred to eat American food. Nowadays he would be excited about trying all the different foods in Japan, but at the time he was nervous about it. We didn’t speak much Japanese, although fortunately we were with an English tour group and we were in tourist areas where most people spoke English.
We visited Tokyo, Mt Fuji and Kyoto, seeing things that I had until that time only seen on television or in books. That trip sparked an interest in international travel that never left. Since that time I’ve been to France, England, and China as part of getting my MBA. And as soon as we got home I started a “someday” fund to hopefully someday return to Japan.
I was originally thinking we would return on our tenth anniversary. Of course was the thinking of naive, 21 year old CMO – before we had kids, a house, cars, jobs, and so on. For years I popped $50 a month away into that account, and if I got a windfall 10% would go in there. Today it sits at enough to take all five of us pretty much anywhere in the world, and now it’s my goal to go overseas with the kids before my oldest goes off to college. Having that money already set aside and quietly growing over time gives me that option, thanks to my 21-year-old self thinking far into the future. Now our 15th anniversary has come and gone, and the fund continues to grow.
Money Gives You Options
I started that account back in 2002, a few months (maybe a year?) after we got married. At the time I was reading online and in magazines/books about different investment options and had stumbled upon Vanguard’s STAR fund. You see, even back in those days I was convinced that index funds were the way to go, but I had a lot of trouble meeting Vanguards minimums of $3k per fund. But I found out I could open a STAR fund for only $1k and you could make additional investments as low as $1! I believe I used a tax refund to open the account, and then set up automatic transfers of $50 a month. Whenever I’d get a bonus, gift, or tax refund I’d pop a small amount of it into the account.
Why the STAR fund? Well there were no target-date funds at the time. I had read that STAR was a good balanced fund with low minimums, providing diversification into stocks and bonds (now international too-not sure if that was there at the time). Since my goal was 10 years away at the time, I didn’t want to take too much risk in the fund but I did want it to grow.
Checking out the fund now, it looks similar to when I bought it. It’s still 60% stocks and 40% bonds, and has an expense ratio of 0.34%. The past 10 years it has grown 6.15% per year-$10k invested back in 2006 has become $18k now. I just put money in and let it ride. It’s actually done only 1% less over the past 10 years than Vanguards S&P 500 index fund (7.12%, 10k has grown to $19,887).
The real key comes in the stability of the fund. When you look at your low over the last 10 years in both funds, the S&P 500 fund crashed down to $6,483 in the Great Recession of 2008. Where did the STAR fund bottom? $7,447. Just by looking at these two funds you can see the risk/return trade-offs. I didn’t mind some volatility because I wasn’t going to need the money for years, but I didn’t want a tremendous amount of volatility because I knew the money wasn’t going to ride for decades. Although now, I guess maybe it is. I didn’t think that at the time, though.
Having this fund gives us more options as our goals shift over time. When I opened the fund, I didn’t know what the next 15 years held-three kids, a new (to us) house in 2006, new cars, medical emergencies, job promotions and losses, etc. and so on. Sometimes I’ve been able to contribute to the fund, and sometimes not. I actually made a withdrawal from the fund to pay for a trip to AZ and the Grand Canyon for our 11th anniversary. This was after my husband had almost died of septic shock a few months before, and right before he underwent another serious surgery connected to the sepsis (an ileostomy reversal, for my doctor readers).
I made a small withdrawal, and its been continuing to grow ever since. It’s now worth more than from before I made the withdrawal and I haven’t contributed to it. All dividends and capital gains are reinvested in the fund, which lets me get new shares every six months when dividends are declared.
Having that money gives us options, even though our lives and goals have changed over the years (and prices have gone up!). We could:
- Go back to Japan on a fancy vacation
- Take everyone (us and our three kids) on a trip through Western Europe
- Visit Africa
- Make a trip to the countries where our ancestors lived – Poland/Italy/Hungary/France/etc. (we have a wide variety of ancestors)
- Travel around the US
- Take multiple smaller trips or one big trip
Even though when I started the fund I had a specific goal, its changed over time. And that’s OK! It’s starting early that put us in the position where the “army of dollar bills” is working quietly while we go about life, chugging out more money. So as our goals have evolved and changed over time, we still have the funds to meet the new goals. In fact, it’s grown to the point where we may be able to do more than one item on the list with the funds.
To be honest I still love the STAR fund as a general investment fund that’s broadly diversified when you’re just starting out, especially if your goal is somewhat fuzzy, undefined, or likely to change over time. Of course when I was 22 starting the fund I thought I knew exactly what my goal was, but life has a funny way of changing in ways 20-somethings can’t anticipate.
Do you have a big goal you’ve been saving towards? Or do you want to start a dream fund so you’ll one day have the flexibility to do something special, even if today you don’t know what it might be? Let me know in the comments.
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